Mike Tomlin is a good football coach, one who has won one Super Bowl and been to another.
But sometimes we forget that he is still learning this whole head coaching thing as he goes.
There probably hasn’t been a better example of Tomlin making a mistake and learning from it than his handling of the Steelers running backs this season.
It’s understandable that Tomlin would want Rashard Mendenhall to be the team’s primary runner. After all, Mendenhall not only has the pedigree as a former first-round pick, he’s got a résumé that backs up that decision as well.
And if this were a normal season, Mendenhall being the Steelers’ lead back would be a no-brainer. Only this has not been a normal season.
Mendenhall is coming off a traumatic knee injury suffered at the end of last season. And for every Adrian Peterson who comes back early and strong from torn knee ligaments, there are 10 other guys who take longer to return to form.
Mendenhall is obviously one of those other guys, not that there is anything wrong with that.
But because Tomlin held out hope that Mendenhall would return to form, he continued to shuffle his running backs in and out of the lineup with no apparent rhyme or reason when he had more than one healthy.
It’s no surprise that some of the Steelers’ best rushing games this season have come when the team was down to just one healthy lead back.
When Jonathan Dwyer got 17 carries each against Cincinnati and Washington, he responded with 122 and 107 yards, respectively.
When Isaac Redman got 26 carries against the Giants, he responded with 147 yards.
But the past two games, Tomlin attempted to get all of his backs carries to get them involved in the game. And as a result, none of them have performed particularly well – though Dwyer did gain 55 yards on 12 attempts against Baltimore.
Things culminated in Cleveland last Sunday, with Mendenhall, Dwyer and Redman all losing fumbles and generally being inneffective when they did hang onto the ball.
Tomlin began yanking his backs out of the game for the miscues, a decision that appeared misguided at best when the Steelers reached the goal line at the end of the half and were handing the ball off to 178-pound rookie Chris Rainey.
Sure, Rainey scored – with one second remaining in the half – after initially being stopped and bouncing the run outside.
But Tomlin would have looked silly in that situation had Rainey been tackled as time expired and he had three much more powerful runners standing banished on the sideline.
Tomlin said Tuesday his decision to make Dywer the team’s primary running back was based on what the running backs have shown to this point.
But the fact of the matter is, none of the backs really showed anything in the loss to Cleveland, and Dwyer’s performance had clearly been better than the others prior to the eight-turnover abomination against the Browns.
That’s not to say that had Tomlin simply named Dwyer the team’s starting running back prior to the loss to the Browns that the outcome would have changed, but he entered that game averaging 4.6 yards per carry, while Mendenhall and Redman were at 3.6 and 3.5, respectively.
Dwyer was clearly the better choice. But Tomlin made a mistake in attempting to use all three.
It was a mistake that Tomlin has learned from.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org